Smog Machine

Smog Machine

And so the long overdue trial of President Donald John Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors has at last begun. We pretty much know where it’s going to go, but if there’s one thing the past four years ought to have taught us, it’s that even the most outrageous surprises and shocks ought not to surprise or shock us. So buckle the fuck up.

Already it’s been head-spinning.

For starters, the past week saw the Senate open its impeachment proceedings with momentarily reassuring solemnity and ceremony……until one realized that this is precisely the kind of charade that the GOP wants, a veneer of gravitas and seriousness that masks the utter depravity of the highway robbery actually about to go on.

The tip off was the surreal spectacle of Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham raising their right hands and swearing an oath that they would be impartial jurors, after bragging to the press (and the President, and their voters back home) that they were going to be anything but. Predictions that someone, anyone on the Democratic side would say boo in objection proved laughable.

As if to make the point, even as that farce was unfolding, last week also saw stunning new evidence of Trump’s complicity in Rudy Giuliani’s “drug deal” (John Bolton’s words, not mine), and a jawdropping TV interview in which Lev Parnas calmly implicated just about every swinging richard in the administration in the crudest kind of political gangsterism imaginable.

(The president’s defenders immediately attacked Parnas as a disreputable thug and indicted felon out only  to save his own skin—much like they once attacked Michael Cohen on the same grounds. And as with Michael Cohen, I feel compelled to point out that Trump hired this guy.)

Last week also gave us an except from Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker’s new book A Very Stable Genius which details a 2017 incident in a classified Pentagon briefing room in which a draft-dodging ex-game show host and serial grifter–cum-Russian stooge berated decorated four-star generals who’d devoted their lives to serving this country, calling them “dopes and babies.” It saw the mainstream media behaving like TMZ in breathlessly manufacturing a fight between Bernie and Elizabeth Warren….Susan Collins continue to disgrace herself…..Trump poaching Jeffrey Epstein’s legal team (perfect!)…..and the emergence of the newest member of the rogues’ gallery of Trump associates, the grotesque Robert F. Hyde, congressional candidate and amateur US ambassador-stalker. (Can I just ask: what the hell is up with that guy?)

And then there was Republican Senator Martha McSally of Arizona, who made news with a sneering, contrived putdown of CNN reporter Manu Raju calculated to thrill the right wing electorate.

Dig it: When McSally ran for the Senate in November 2018, she lost to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. (I repeat. She lost to a Democrat. In Arizona.) She is only in the Senate now because Arizona’s Republican governor appointed her to fill the seat being vacated by retiring Senator Jon Kyl, who himself had stepped in only temporarily after John McCain died. Now McSally is locked in a desperate fight to stay in office, with threats both from her right flank in the upcoming GOP primary, and from the left in the subsequent general election, in the person of her popular Democratic opponent, former astronaut Mark Kelly (also Gabby Giffords’ husband, by the by).

In that context, it is generally assumed that McSally’s performance was a deliberate ploy aimed at shoring up the mouthbreather vote, rather than a genuine expression of her contempt for the widely respected Mr. Raju as a “liberal hack.” Which raises the question: if you’re only pretending to be a troglodyte in order to win over the troglodytes, at what point does that behavior actually make you a troglodyte?

The ever-incisive Greg Sargent wrote in the Washington Post:

In a perverse way, it’s fitting that this episode is going viral at exactly the moment when President Trump’s impeachment trial is getting underway—that is, when Trump’s defenders in the Senate are set to put on a great show of pretending to give serious consideration to the case against Trump, before voting to acquit him. McSally’s vile little performance puts the lie to that notion as effectively as anything possibly could.

PRO WRESTLING IN THE CAPITOL

So now the main event is about to begin, even if the fix is clearly in.

For its opening stages, the first questions are whether the GOP will vote to dismiss right off the bat, and whether any witnesses are going to be called before Moscow Mitch pronounces Trump sinless as Jesus Christ and twice as good on camera.

Dismissal seems unlikely, if only for tactical reasons. For once, Team Trump may be smart enough to avoid asking for an embarrassing losing vote, while McConnell knows there’s no need to be even more brazen than usual when he can just as easily arrange an acquittal in a couple weeks’ time. (Then again, no one has yet overestimated either one’s arrogance, so let’s wait and see.)

When it comes to the latter question, Charlie Sykes noted in the Bulwark that Trump’s repeated, histrionic calls for the Senate to hear witnesses will of course soon be revealed as “bullshit, as the president will make every effort to block any witnesses from testifying at the trial.”

And no wonder. We are getting a fuller picture of the cloud of sleaze, corruption, and sheer stupidity that surrounds his presidency and his dealings with Ukraine. As David French notes, the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his “team” (including Lev Parnas) were a virtual traveling Mos Eisley cantina of crooks, grifters, and amateurs…..

But on that point of just how kangarooish this trial is going to be, the most pertinent thing I read all week was satire from the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri, in a piece called “Sure, Whatever, Let’s Have Witnesses. Maybe That’ll Finally Convince Me Trump Is Guilty”:

I thought I was at a point where no fact, however compelling, could possibly break through my blissful fog of ignorant support for President Trump, but—I’d love to be proved wrong!….

So, why not have witnesses! Sure, let’s hear from John Bolton! Let’s hear from Lev Parnas! Maybe reading a note on some Ritz-Carlton stationery describing the president’s involvement in withholding aid in exchange for the announcement of an investigation into his political rival will turn out to be the thing that changes my mind.

Ouch. She’s dead right, of course. Nothing is going to open the hermetically sealed minds of MAGA Nation, not even a time-stamped video of Donald dressed like a French maid and giving Vlad Putin a Robert Kraft-style happy ending.

Don’t get me wrong. There are numerous very good reasons why the Senate ought to hear from fact witnesses: in order to discharge its constitutional duty, to let the truth be known, and to demonstrate to the country and the world the manifest criminality that Senate Republicans are about to shamelessly excuse. Indeed, there are no good reasons it should not hear witnesses.

But Petri’s point—that nothing is going to change the minds of Trump’s faithful, least of all facts, no matter how irrefutable—speaks to the broader truth at the core of this entire national nightmare, one that I’ve written about over and over: millions of Americans simply do not care about Trump’s crimes, or his shocking unfitness for the presidency, or the danger he poses to the republic and the world.

And that is only a subset of a larger and even more alarming fact: that belief in objective reality itself—truth, as it quaintly used to be called—is vanishing. But it is not vanishing of its own accord. It is vanishing because it is under relentless attack by forces that benefit from its obliteration.

Guess who.

THE TRIUMPH OF TRUTHINESS

The destruction of objective reality as a commonly accepted metric has been widely remarked upon as probably the most dangerous aspect of Trump’s reign, one that promises to have lasting and deleterious consequences long after this oranged-hued pustule of an alleged human being has been lanced.

To understand why, and how it came to be, let’s look to Russia, global leader in ballet, ice hockey, and radioactive teacups.

Unlike old-fashioned dictators, Vladimir Putin has pioneered the art of despotism that gives the illusion of freedom, making it all the more insidious. Freedom of speech exists in Putin’s Russia, but is toothless. The mass of the Russian people willingly, even eagerly, submit to his authoritarian reign (a la À Nous la Liberté), having been beaten into a state of collective cynicism. For Putin, the preferred mindset of his loyal subjects is that all politicians are corrupt and dishonest, the truth is unknowable, and liberal democracy is just as much a sham as post-Soviet autocracy.

To achieve this state of intellectual paralysis and submission, Vlad has mounted a war on the very idea of truth itself. As Dave Roberts wrote in Vox last November:

As Putin and other modern autocrats have realized, in the modern media environment—a chaotic Wild West where traditional gatekeepers are in decline—it is not necessary for a repressive regime to construct its own coherent account of events. There are no broadly respected, nonpartisan referees left to hold it to account for consistency or accuracy. All it needs, to get away with whatever it wants, is for the information environment to be so polluted that no one can figure out what’s true and what isn’t, or what’s really going on.

Or as Garry Kasparov famously said (and he oughta know): “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”

I have written previously about this, in Rudy Giuliani: Post-Modern Philosopher (August 20, 2018), The Death of Hypocrisy (October 22, 2018), The Right Wing Loop of Malicious Ignorance (March 1, 2019), and The End of Outrage (June 20, 2019). But the most exhaustive exploration of the topic to my knowledge is British filmmaker Adam Curtis’s stunning documentary HyperNormalisation, available for free on his preferred platform, YouTube. Curtis’s movie explores the origins of this effort in (not kidding) Russian avant garde theater, and its weaponization by Putin to neutralize meaningful dissent and political opposition. And it’s a model he is successfully exporting to his client state the USA even as we speak.

More recently there was a brilliant deconstruction of this phenomenon by Sean Illing, also in Vox. Let me quote from it at length:

We’re in an age of manufactured nihilism. The issue for many people isn’t exactly a denial of truth as such. It’s more a growing weariness over the process of finding the truth at all. And that weariness leads more and more people to abandon the idea that the truth is knowable….

What we’re facing is a new form of propaganda that wasn’t really possible until the digital age. And it works not by creating a consensus around any particular narrative but by muddying the waters so that consensus isn’t achievable….

Illing goes on to quote the smug and insufferable (but not wrong) Steve Bannon, who in 2018 notoriously said that, “The Democrats don’t matter; the real opposition is the media.” In other words, the Republicans’ true enemy are facts themselves, and those who would point them out. Bannon’s solution, which he proudly touts, has been “to flood the zone with shit”…..that is, to apply those Russian-pioneered and tested principles detailed in HyperNormalisation. Illing again:

We live in a media ecosystem that overwhelms people with information. Some of that information is accurate, some of it is bogus, and much of it is intentionally misleading. The result is a polity that has increasingly given up on finding out the truth. As Sabrina Tavernise and Aidan Gardiner put it in a New York Times piece, “people are numb and disoriented, struggling to discern what is real in a sea of slant, fake, and fact.” This is partly why an earth-shattering historical event like a president’s impeachment has done very little to move public opinion….

(Zone-flooding) produces a certain nihilism in which people are so skeptical about the possibility of finding the truth that they give up the search. Putin uses the media to engineer a fog of disinformation, producing just enough distrust to ensure that the public can never mobilize around a coherent narrative.

Illing goes on to quote Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born reality TV producer turned academic and the author of a book on the subject, who contends that Putin’s aim “wasn’t to sell an ideology or a vision of the future; instead, it was to convince people that ‘the truth is unknowable’ and that the only sensible choice is ‘to follow a strong leader.’”

That terrifying epistemological void represents the exact dynamics described in Erich Fromm’s seminal 1941 book Escape from Freedom…..which is to say, the human impulse to trade freedom for security, accounting for the otherwise mysterious appeal of a tyrant.

Though Illing refers above to an informational “fog” (even Petri uses that term in her satire), it’s actually something much more sinister than that naturally occurring phenomenon, with its benign Sandburgian associations. It’s more like smog: a toxic miasma, one deliberately produced by folks with ill intent, meant to obscure and choke.

The evidence suggests it is working depressingly well.

INK-STAINED WRETCHES AND UNWITTING ACCOMPLICES

Like a frivolous lawsuit, this Putin/Bannon-style disinformation does not have to have any credibility to achieve its goal: just sowing doubt is enough. Inserting into the media bloodstream an unfounded rumor—sometimes called a “lie”—or scurrilous innuendo, or outright slander, poisons the informational system by definition. It doesn’t matter if it’s untrue, or easily disproven: its mere existence creates at least some believers, and enough confusion to achieve its intended, malicious effect. The goal is simply to create a false equivalence in which an absurd contention—the earth is flat, climate change is a hoax, Trump understands the nuclear triad—is given just as much credence and weight as a demonstrably true one.

The media’s inherent impulse toward “objectivity” only exacerbates the problem. In another Vox piece called “Donald Trump and the Rise of Tribal Epistemology,” published early in the Trump administration, the aforementioned David Roberts argued that “journalism cannot be neutral toward a threat to the conditions that make it possible.” Yet even after being played for suckers in 2016, the mainstream US media continues to treat Trump like an ordinary politician, not the dangerous, lie-spewing psychopath he is. A prime example was the response to Trump’s  batshit six-page letter of last December 17, which was reported with headlines like “Trump Savages Impeachment Proceedings in Letter to Pelosi” (from Politico), and “Trump Slams Impeachment as an ‘Illegal, Partisan Attempted Coup’” (CNBC), and not the more accurate and appropriate “Trump Goes on Unhinged Rant; SWAT Team of Psychiatrists Called In.”

But even when pushing back, as they occasionally do, presents journalists with a dilemma which speaks to the difficulty of reporting on a player operating in bad faith. Illing cites UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff on the “framing effect,” which holds that the more a lie is repeated—even in the process of debunking it—the more we begin to believe it, as the sheer repetition inevitably cements it in the mind and gives it the halo of truth.

That puts Trump’s critics in a real bind. As Illing writes:

Debunking it is still useful, of course, but there’s a cost to dignifying it in the first place…. There are too many claims to debunk and too many conflicting narratives. And the decision to cover something is a decision to amplify it and, in some cases, normalize it.

Another toxic effect of “flooding the zone” is that it dishonestly tars legitimate news organizations as being no better than their underhanded and untruthful rivals:

The left overwhelmingly receives its news from organizations like the New York Times, the Washington Post, or cable news networks like MSNBC or CNN. Some of the reporting is surely biased, and probably biased in favor of liberals, but it’s still (mostly) anchored to basic journalistic ethics.

As a recent book by three Harvard researchers explains, this just isn’t true of the right. American conservative media functions like a closed system, with Fox News at the center. Right-wing outlets are less tethered to conventional journalistic ethics and exist mostly to propagate the bullshit they produce.

Ironically, Trump’s supporters viciously distrust the media—but only the legitimate media, while eagerly ingesting “news” from a wanton disinformation machine like Fox. But that is the very point: that these fellow Americans of ours are in a Bizarro World where up is down, right is wrong, and day is night, projecting on the other side (and especially the “other side’s” media, as they view it) their own side’s most grievous sins.

In addition to the debasement of traditional journalism, the rise of social media and technological developments in just the last ten years have turbocharged this already dangerous situation, as Illing alluded to above:

One major reason for the (Bannon) strategy’s success, both in the US and Russia, is that it coincided with a moment when the technological and political conditions were in place for it to thrive. Media fragmentation, the explosion of the internet, political polarization, curated timelines, and echo chambers—all of this allows a “flood the zone with shit” strategy to work.

Today, gatekeepers still matter in terms of setting a baseline for political knowledge, but there’s much more competition for clicks and audiences, and that alters the incentives for what’s declared newsworthy in the first place. At the same time, traditional media outlets remain committed to a set of norms that are ill adapted to the modern environment.

To that end, the scariest horror movie of the past year might have been the feature documentary The Great Hack by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, detailing how Cambridge Analytica ratfucked the 2016 election, and how the exponential growth of data mining is feeding a vast global campaign of meticulously specific and targeted disinformation, with a sophistication never before possible in human history.

WHAT, ME WORRY?

In some ways, though, this story is not all that alarming. After all, we’re not talking about covert manipulation of voting machines. (We should be, but we’re not.) In the end, no matter how intense or sophisticated this disinformation may be, what it comes down to is nothing more than trying to change people’s minds. No one is forcing anyone to vote for Trump, or surreptitiously changing their vote (as far as we know). All they’re doing is barraging us 24/7 with propaganda and lies that browbeat, deceive, and otherwise manipulate us into supporting political positions that are in opposition to the facts, our own true interests, and anything approaching defensible morality.

Yeah. That’s all.

It’s true that millions of thoughtful Americans have proven resistant to the firehose of bullshit that is aimed at them every day. Critical thinking remains the hazmat suit that protects against such venomous informational warfare.

Even so, it goes without saying that it is not healthy for a representative democracy to be under this kind of malicious, non-stop, psychological assault. Even if you personally are clear-thinking enough to see through the propaganda, not everyone is. We all know (and many of us are related to) otherwise intelligent, educated people—some of them very intelligent and very well-educated—who for one reason or another have been taken in by the con artistry of the current moment. And we flatter ourselves even to think that we ourselves are immune to it. Brainwashing works, and Stockholm syndrome is real; sufficient repetition of a lie will eventually crack even the most rational mind and the strongest will. The smog machine is a severe threat to democracy that we ignore at our peril.

Now the good news: I am told by professionals in the field that we can use this law of informational physics for our own purposes as well, to counter dark propaganda and obliterate the lies. It ain’t easy. But if we continue to hammer our own message—which has the advantage of being true—small cracks will begin to appear in the red wall of ignorance and slavish blind faith that feeds the Trumpian cult of personality. And once those cracks appear, they can be widened. People do leave cults, after all.

Of course, others drink the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid and die.

CUI BONO

Illing explains how this dynamic has played out in the impeachment saga:

The Trump administration has been remarkably successful at muddying the waters on Ukraine and impeachment, and Republicans in Congress have helped by parroting the administration’s talking points.

The fact is, Trump did what Democrats have accused him of doing. We know, with absolute certainty, that the president tried to get a foreign government to investigate a family member of one of his political rivals. And we know this because of the witnesses who testified before the House Intelligence Committee and because Trump’s own White House released a record of the call proving it.

Yet all the polling data we have suggests that public opinion on Trump and Ukraine has basically held steady. Again, some of this is pure partisan recalcitrance. But there’s good reason to believe that the right’s muddying of the waters—making the story about Ukraine and Hunter Biden, pushing out conspiracy theories, repeatedly trumpeting Trump’s own version of events, etc.—has played a role.

The issue is that the coverage of the trials, in both the mainstream press and right-wing outlets, ensures that these counternarratives are part of the public conversation. It adds to the general atmosphere of doubt and confusion. And that’s why zone flooding presents a near-insoluble problem for the press.

Roberts again: “This is what Republicans need more than anything on impeachment: for the general public to see it as just another round of partisan squabbling, another illustration of how ‘Washington’ is broken.”

But in truth, any reasonable, clear-eyed evaluation of the simple facts of Ukrainegate blows that “both sides have a point”-ism right out of the water. And that’s just what we know. Lev Parnas’s TV appearances last week made it very clear that there is still a helluva lot we don’t know, and none of it is likely very good news for Trump.

But will any of it matter?

In his Vox piece from last November, David Roberts wondered “what would happen if Robert Mueller offered clear, incontrovertible evidence of Trump’s guilt. Would Republicans be able to prevent supporters from ever finding out? What if the truth was revealed but it had no power, no effect at all, because half the country had been walled off from it? What if there is no longer any evidentiary standard that can overcome our polarization?”

Now, with Ukrainegate, that scenario looks like it is about to come to pass.

This is the point I have been hammering on about for months: that we would not be in this fix if millions of Americans were not totally onboard with this monstrosity of a US presidency. Even though they are in the minority, their political clout is sufficient to empower the venal Republican leadership to keep a chokehold on the republic.

Another way to look at it is that the rest of America—the majority, that is—has been insufficiently militant in getting to our feet and making our voices heard that we will not stand for this shit.

As impeachment remains unlikely to evict Trump, and exercise of the 25th Amendment is hopeless, the ballot box remains our last best hope to save the United States as we once knew it. Last week the WaPo ran article titled, “Poll Finds Black Americans Determined to Limit Trump to One Term.” Oh let it be so, for we all know that the African-American vote is critical to getting this sonofabitch out of office. So let’s translate that anger into levers pulled and boxes checked and chads punched at the polls in November.

But oh the irony that we are counting on black Americans to save the republic. After all it’s done for them.

STARR CHAMBER

All of which brings us back to Trump’s trial itself. As the author Erick Kelemen writes, Ken Starr couldn’t get a conviction in the last impeachment; maybe he’ll do better this time.

Jonathan Chait has already pre-emptively destroyed the GOP’s absurd defense, per Starr’s colleague Alan Dershowitz, which seems to hinge on the monarchist notion that a US president cannot be removed for abuse of power, an absolutely ass-backwards inversion of the entire impeachment clause.

Trump believes profoundly that a president can use the government exactly as he sees fit. In his mind, “abuse of power” is an oxymoron. To charge him with “abusing” the presidency makes no more sense than charging him with abusing the Trump Organization for personal gain. And now the authoritarian conviction that Trump believes as a matter of instinct has been sanctified as a formal legal theory, endorsed by presidential lawyers.

As my friend Susan Koppenhaver writes, let’s try swapping “Obama” for “Trump” in this above-the-law defense and see how long Republicans stick with that theory.

Dershowitz is arguing that the Founders didn’t really mean “high crimes and misdemeanors” when they wrote “high crimes and misdemeanors”….they meant ordinary crimes, like robbing a bank, or shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue. (Ahem.)

Two problems with that.

First, as Chait points out, the GAO just publicly announced its conclusion that Trump did commit a literal crime in withholding aid to Ukraine. And second, it didn’t take long for the press to dig up video of Dersh telling CNN exactly the opposite in 1998:

It certainly doesn’t have to be a crime, if you have somebody who completely corrupts the office of president, and who abuses trust and who poses great danger to our liberty, you don’t need a technical crime.

But even as risible and utterly without merit as this defense is, it may well be enough of a fig leaf—more than enough, in fact—for Republicans to hold in front of their tiny tiny testicles as they vote to acquit (and thereby further embolden) Donald Trump. Even less credible is the Republican argument that we ought to leave it to the next election to decide what we should do about a president who is trying to steal that election.

Charlie Sykes again:

It would almost be funny, if the stakes were not so high. We are, after all, watching a bad reality television show with nuclear weapons and a president whose contempt for the rule of law will be unleashed by the near-inevitable vote to acquit.

The conduct involved is serious enough, but this is what makes this trial unique: it involves an ongoing high crime and misdemeanor. The key difference between this investigation and the Mueller probe is that his misconduct in Ukraine is prospective—it involves attempts to meddle with the upcoming election, not the last one. His presidency remains an active crime scene….

(Republicans’) eventual vote to acquit Trump will be even more dangerous because “exoneration” will further embolden a president who already runs his government like a gangster. How might he react? What might he do? Never forget: This Ukraine adventure began literally the day after Robert Mueller testified before Congress and Trump thought that he had been let off the hook for obstructing justice.

So tomorrow, when the impeachment trial begins in earnest, the effect of this epistemological shitshow will be on full display. Every indication is that the Republicans will make an absolute sham of it. But their ability to do so, and get away with it, will be predicated on the willingness of millions of Americans to ignore indisputable evidence in favor of immersion in counter-factual fantasy and post-modern rejection of the very concept of objective reality.

********

Illustration: National Geographic

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